DWBlood, it seems, is everywhere. It puddles on social media where no reasonable limit is placed on what people are allowed to post. Torture, executions, genocide: in the past year, I’ve seen sights that my grandfather, who lived through the trenches of the Somme, could never have seen and I only wish never to see again. I’ve seen in megapixel detail a close-up of a baby torn apart by shrapnel. I’ve seen charred twigs in a Nigerian playground: the incinerated corpses of schoolchildren too many to count. I’ve seen blood as it pools in the streets after stabbings, shootings, and terrorist outrages. Body parts. Mortality. The deep well of internet nihilism. Times are violent and we might only be at the beginning of a brutal spasm of our history.

Last week in Ireland, a young Portuguese sportsman became the latest victim of this bloodlust. His name was Joao Carvalho and he died from brain damage sustained fighting in a ‘Total Extreme Fighting’ competition in Dublin. He was the thirteenth person to have died since mixed martial arts (MMA) emerged as a sport in the 1980s. Only four of those deaths have happened inside sanctioned competitions but, as the sport’s popularity outstrips the ability of organisers to manage its success, unsanctioned fights are on the rise. There is, as yet, no governing body for MMA in Ireland.

Carvalho’s death should surprise few who have witnessed MMA develop from a minority interest in the martial arts community into the global phenomenon known as the ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ (UFC). It was, perhaps, more of a shock because it happened so soon after the mainstream media had fallen in love with the sport. Just a few weeks ago, a fight took place in Las Vegas that dominated the press. Conor McGregor was fighting Nate Diaz at UFC 196.

McGregor eventually lost the fight when he was forced to ‘tap out’ after Diaz put him in a choke hold that threatened to starve the oxygen from McGregor’s brain. That might sound like an overly clinical way of describing the end of a ‘thrilling’ match but such is the reality of a sport that attempts to place controls on techniques that are proven to kill. Much of UFC’s success comes down to how well that control has been maintained. MMA has managed to elevate itself from ‘cage fighting’ to become one of the world’s most rapidly growing sports. It has made men like McGregor into mainstream sporting idols; squash-nosed totems of a brutal age with their faces on the covers to computer games increasing their fame among the young. McGregor is personable and very media savvy. Last night he announced his ‘retirement’ on Twitter. Did he mean it? Probably not. Expect to see every bigger pay days in his immediate future. Audiences love his bearded hipster vibe and the well cut suits he wears for America’s late night TV audiences. They love it even more when he’s stripped down to his raw menace. A tiger tattoo covers his tightly muscled belly, his name and fighting nickname (‘Notorious’) above and below. Across his chest is a monstrosity of the tattooist’s art: some strange ape creature from Eastern mythology as imagined by somebody in love with the symbolism of the Prussian Empire.

To outsiders, the fights might look unremarkable and no different to street brawling. Yet the skills have taken years to master, no more so than the psychological training it takes to walk towards injury and to shrug aside pain. Indeed, it is the wide variety of injuries which critics argue makes MMA more dangerous that boxing but that, really, is to understate the complexity. There is a compelling argument which suggests that mixed martial arts and the UFC, in particular, are, in fact, much safer. The average UFC bout subjects the human brain to far less trauma than does a boxing match. UFC fighters wear gloves that are significantly lighter and offer less protection to an opponent’s head than the wider (but heavier) glovers worn by boxers. That might sound counterintuitive but, it is argued, fighters are safer if they succumb to one well-placed blow than if they are subjected to multiple rounds of heavy punches that repeatedly rattle the brain around inside the skull but rarely end in an outright knockout.

Even if you don’t find that argument convincing, there are other reasons to suggest that UFC is safer. The promoters can rightly argue that they take great care of their fighters and, it might be said, their investment. Medical staff can step in at any time and the match is over the moment a fighter is knocked out. That is different to boxing where, depending on the type and timing of the ‘knockout’, the fighter can recover to carry on.

We should, I think, accept all of this. We should bow to the wisdom of those that understand the sport from the inside. Let us also accept that, in terms of injuries, UFC is no worse than boxing. Let us, in fact, accept that the tragic death of Joao Carvalho was just one of the small number of deaths that can happen in any sport. MMA records fewer deaths than skiing, road cycling or long distance running. Statistically, even fishing records higher numbers of deaths each and every year. Above all, let us accept all these things because, there is a different discussion we should be having and it has nothing to do with statistics, the technical rules, or even assurances about the proper safety etiquette. We need to discuss a sport that panders to the worst instincts of our species.

As a spectacle, MMA is an obscene display of human barbarity. It celebrates qualities which, in a civilised age, we might have thought to have left behind. It is sport as conceived through a dysfunctional prefrontal cortex that knows the impulsive savagery that exists within all of us. It fuels the very worst instincts in the viewer; that feral urge to annihilate and to destroy. It is a slickly marketed bloodlust that turns opponents into carcasses to be beaten until it’s time for the burger ads.

Consider, if you can, the psychological conditioning required to kick somebody in the head. Consider too what it takes to kick somebody in the head when they’re in no position to defend themselves. Now, of course, MMA’s supporters would point out that kicking an opponent in the head when they’re prone is not allowed in MMA. Yet one knee on the canvas constitutes ‘standing’. So, imagine, if you could, a person kneeling in front of you. Now consider the riches you will earn if you could override your moral programming and raise your knee rapidly into that person’s face. Could you do it?

If you could do that or, perhaps, send your elbow crashing into their nose, then the outcome of your action would be considered the aesthetic of the sport. Blood is very much an iconic representation of MMA. It is more obvious, even, than in boxing. The nature of the fighting make the blood a natural lubricant, smearing bodies as the fighters wrestle on the ground. The canvas after a fight is a grotesquely dressed butcher’s slab on which advertisers seem proud to have their logo smeared with gore. After his fight against McGregor, Nate Diaz celebrated for the cameras; his face like something from a cheap horror movie, the gloopy bloody thick across his brow and his smashed nose, streaking in free flowing rivulets down his face, neck and chest. It is hardly an exception to the rule in a sport where fighters are given grim nicknames. Carvalho died after fighting Charlie ‘The Hospital’ Ward. It’s a dark humour in keeping with a sport that has also celebrated ‘The Axe Murderer’. They might only be words and, certainly, professional wrestling has done all this before with ‘The Undertaker’ and worse. Yet wrestling remains a parody of violence; a pantomime release of the ugliness that MMA makes real. It was bloodlust without the blood. MMA gives us the same bloodlust but with plenty of blood.

Before we talk about regulations, glove sizes, the length of rounds, and the location of emergency personnel, surely we should ask ourselves how we came to this. Does simply knowing that we can do this within safety margins justify anesthetising ourselves to causal violence? Supporters of UFC would argue that banning it would simply push it underground, where the sport would be unsanctioned by any governing bodies, unmonitored by health professionals, and posing a real risk to the fighters. Yet perhaps that’s where this barbarity belongs. Let it go back to that mythical world of gangster movies where fights take place in darkened warehouses or freight container ships moored in international waters. The world of bare knuckle boxing had (and continues to have) a certain majesty that was part bravery, party machismo, but largely a frontier spirit because it straddled legality. It was better because it was taboo.

Commodifying violence is to redefine the illegal as something belonging in the mainstream. It means that we condone the worst part of ourselves, that brain chemistry that helped our species survive in a dangerous primitive world. MMA is an attempt to cherish and harbour a psychology that cannot be controlled and, certainly, should not be encouraged. It drags our violent past back it into the spotlight. It exposes to the bright lights of prime time that part of our nature that should always be liminal, seen askance in the twilight, in the fringes of our culture. It brings violence so close to what’s reasonable that we should not be surprised if we find violence a convenient answer to our next problem.

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16 Comments on "The price we pay for our bloodlust"

  1. Never fought for fun or money David but had quite a few fights as a teenager and personally never gave kicking someone in the head a second thought at the time, that may sound stupid but if they were down then that was where I wanted them to stay until the fight was well and truly over. Thats my pragmatism again, I once jumped on someone I had got on the floor and he managed to turn me over and smash my face in, only an idiot repeats their mistakes. Now I will happily admit I’m not coming from what will be considered a ‘normal’ backroung here, where I grew up was very deprived and very violent in the scope of things and it was my good fortune to be academically gifted or I’d no doubt still be there. I grew up with quite few talented boxers and martial artists including an ABA finalist and they all thrived on the fight and the challenge. I don’t think any of them went professional but at least in theory something like boxing or MMA would have been the one chance for them to escape too and I wouldn’t begrudge them that. I have to say I don’t watch MMA as it seems like too much rolling around on the floor to me and I stopped watching boxing many years ago when I realised just how much fixing went on in the sport but on the issue of safety then far more people have been killed in equestrian activities, ok you could argue the intention there isn’t to hurt but the result is still the same.
    On the general issue of condoning/desensitizing ourselves to violence then I would argue that this is going on in far more insidious ways at the moment. We are in an age where every sporting event now rolls out people in uniform, where there is some kind of bizarre reverence for members of the forces, a eulogising of them as ‘heroes’ when in reality when you strip away all the BS they are actually paid to kill people.

    • Ah, your pragmatism vs my idealism again, Rob. I admit, I’ve had a few fights myself but they all remarkably stopped once I started to train in Karate. Then nobody (oddly) wanted to take me on. I don’t think, however, that I could have ever kicked anybody in the head. Their nuts, yes, but never the head. Or, at least, not when they were on the ground. That, however, is beside the point. I don’t, myself, like the argument that it allows these people to escape poverty. Sounds too close to laissez-fair economics where the market dictates everything. Before you know it, we’re in a Solent Green scenario and grandmothers are offering themselves up to dog food companies in exchange for holidays for their grandchildren…

      I agree, though, wholeheartedly about the way we are treating our soldiers. It’s the poppy day problem, again, I suppose, when remembrance is being politicised so it becomes a celebration of British military involvement. In that sense, I suppose, MMA is at least a more honest representation of violence. However, I still think it’s a sickness rather than a cure. It is that point at which the market gives people what they want without actually considering whether it’s right to do so.

  2. I have to admit as much as I love sport be it Football, Rugby, Tennis or Athletics I am not a lover of any “Sport” whose main objective is to hurt or disable someone else. To an outsider like myself it seems with these extreme sports that almost anything goes in the pursuit of winning a fight. If you hit someone hard enough and repeatedly you are sometimes going to hurt them so badly that they will either suffer lasting damage or maybe die. Dave you spoke of someone called McGregor who had to submit after he was held in a choke that threatened to starve the oxygen from his brain!!! I had to read it a few times to digest what it meant. If that is not barbaric I am not sure what is. What next a sport where two individuals take an axe and see who can behead the other one first!! Blood is everywhere as you rightly say and are we getting more immune the more we see. Images of IS beheadings that go on Social Media are gleefully shared by some as if we have lost some of our humanity and compassion for our fellow Man. I find it all pretty depressing as someone who worries if a football player breaks his leg or if a rugby player is stamped on but these are usually accidental injuries and not life threatening. I remember in the old days of seventies football tough Players like Tommy Smith of Liverpool would often give a hard tackle or “reducer” on an opponent a practice now rightly stopped, but at least he was not trying to cause brain damage. Football has moved on and I know some say it has gone too soft but you do need some rules and protection if you value people’s livelihoods. When the activity you are engaged in says you have the right to hurt someone as much as you want is that really a Sport and if so what does it say about us?

    • Thanks Paul. And great reference to Tommy Smith since that I’m sitting here still celebrating that majestic 4-0 win last night.

      As to the rest: I agree completely. It’s why I find that ‘oxygen to the brain’ argument so persuasive. If you actually examine the physiological effects of martial arts techniques, you begin to see how truly dangerous they are. I studied Karate for about five years but was appalled to see the emerging interest in full contact fighting. Perhaps I’m just a wuss but it seems insane that in football possibly the worst thing (beyond a studs-up leg breaker) is the elbow to the head. Yet that’s precisely what’s encouraged in MMA.

      Myself, I think it’s gone too far and is yet another example of how we are being failed by the free market. Just because people *want* to do some things does not mean that government should always step back and permit it. In an ideal world, perhaps they could because their actions would harm only themselves. However, MMA seems to feed an unhealthy appetite for this kind of violence in our society. Maybe, as Rob says, it has always been around. In fact, I’m sure it has. However, there is a difference between knowing it exists and celebrating its existence.

      • So where are you both with this issue?, do you think that MMA and Boxing ought to be banned?. For me that would be just another step down the slippery slope of eroding individual freedom. If you follow the logic that something is harmful so should be prohibited what do you make of the following. Alcohol is immensely harmful to society therefore we should ban it. Gambling, hugely destructive, ban it. Fatty foods are costing the NHS a fortune, ban them. Sugar, well we’ve seen the report on kids teeth so ban it. STDs are on the rise, unprotected sex, ban it. Motorcycles are dangerous, ban them, violence on TV, ban it. Where do you draw the line?. Labour created 3600 new offences in 11 years and I do think that criminalising and banning things is a very unpalatable trait of the left.

        • Good question, Rob, but doesn’t your logic also works the other way? Where would you stop? If you give people absolute freedom, then where do we draw the line? To choose your examples: why do we have speed limits on roads? Is it to protect drivers or the innocents who would be harmed by drivers? Obviously it’s the latter. A ban isn’t always a ban as much as protecting other people’s liberty. The liberty not to die because some arse wants to drive his Audi at 180mph.

          I have always thought of myself as being fairly libertarian but I’m increasingly worried about the free market and how far our freedoms can take us towards anarchy (or even totalitarianism). I generally draw the line where personal freedoms begin to overlap with other people’s freedoms. In other words: does your right to do something conflict with my right not to do something.

          I wouldn’t support a ban on smoking except, as a non smoker, I know that my own freedom *not* to smoke was routinely ignored. So I support that ban. Boxing I would not ban. I don’t think it’s harmful to society. However, I would ban MMA because I do think it’s harmful to the broader community.

          I find it harder to defend the fox hunting ban or, in fact, the ban on any blood sports. That would take me into the philosophy of animal rights. Myself, I don’t like any blood spot but I find it hard to justify the bans. I suppose if people take part in something that is psychologically harmful, then I think a ban seems reasonable. In that sense, animal cruelty could make people feral and that, I suppose, might be a reason to ban certain sports that glory in the barbaric. Pornography, for example, is a perfect example. It can be psychologically harmful in that the very worst cases it makes individuals descend into a kind of bodily nihilism.

          • For me the line is whether the activities being engaged in generally harm others who are not engaging in them. Now having said that, by that measure alcohol would possibly be banned. Do I want to see it banned, no, do I think it ought to be controlled more strictly, absolutely. So I am in danger of immediately contradicting my own rule which I would defend by saying the vast majority of drinkers harm only themselves. I think that when you start down the road that MMA is harmful to the broader community because of the levels of violence then you are treading similar path to Mary Whitehouse. The vast majority of people will see MMA on the TV, so it falls under the umbrella of violence on TV. How can anyone possibly be an arbiter of what type of violence on TV is harmful?, surely you have to get rid of the lot which may not be a bad thing. I don’t agree with you on the distinction between boxing and MMA, the recent Eubank fight where his opponent ended up in an induced coma fighting with an eye which was closed would seem to me to be not so very far removed and some of the fights which erupt amongst the crowd at boxing matches would shame the boxers.

          • Rob, thanks for coming back. But, again, where do we draw the line? You say that nobody can possibly be an arbiter and you use the always potent name of Mary Whitehouse to make your point. I agree. I feel myself leaning back from the PC whenever that name comes up. Yet, really, what are we arguing? That we have no sense of what’s ‘acceptable’ because we’re frightened of becoming a fussy busy-body?

            We begin being frightened of being seen as the new Whitehouse who wanted even mild obscenities banned and end up accepting snuff videos and the worst kind of octopus Hentei? Yes, in philosophical terms, we face a problem. It’s the same problem we discussed with Whittingdale. At an abstract level, all this is pointless. Blood is just carbon, iron, and a whole load of other elements making up organics. Our tabboos are within us and are (in a way) arbitrary. Yet, as living breathing humans, we must know some sense of right and wrong. As Paul says, there is a difference between stabbing somebody and dropping litter.

            Boxing, I agree, is not perfect but it has a notional sense of law. It doesn’t exist in order to celebrate a feral quality. MMA does, I think, promote that kind of psychology. It is ‘no holds barred’ and ‘extreme’. It is nearly as harmful to the people watching as it is to the people fighting.

  3. Yes great win last night for Liverpool and being a Swansea City fan I remember when Tommy Smith and a load of other Liverpool players with John Toshack as Manager played for us. We gave you Brendan Rogers too but fancy you have hit the Jackpot with Klopp.

    I am with you on this and I realize some will say if people want to do it let them do so and no one has the right to stop them. I just think at some point you have to have a red line so that vulnerable people are protected sometimes from themselves. I can see Rob’s argument about people living in deprived areas seeking an outlet and you could argue if they take up say boxing instead of a life of crime that is to be applauded .These extreme sports seem to go beyond the Boxing World though.

    • Oh, never mention the name Brendan Rodgers in my company. Never liked the man. Dead set against his appointment and hated every day of his reign. I even stopped watching football for a while because I was so fed up of his nonsense. He was the kind of mouthy, corporate flash Harry that I despise. I love Klopp. Exactly his opposite. (I am also a fan of Allen. Think he was a really good buy and I hope he’ll sign a new contract.)

      Boxing is different and I’d generally defend it. The aggression is controlled and almost made civilized. I agree with Rob about the corruption ruining it. MMA is something else. It’s too feral.

  4. I think banning is a last resort and would not advocate banning boxing. As for MMA I must be honest I do not know enough about it having only heard about it recently on a radio discussion and David’s comments here today. Like David I think we have to have some rules and laws as freedoms come with responsibility. How far we take it is a matter of opinion .I think most people would agree that Stabbing someone is wrong and should be illegal but what about dropping litter. I am sure some would say this is the Nanny State and just a cash cow but others would argue no throwing litter on a pavement is wrong and should be banned. I agree with Rob that you have to be careful and criminalising and banning almost anything is the wrong way to go and there have to be very sound reasons for doing so

    Apologies for mentioning BR .Yes Joe Allen was liked at Swansea and I hope he starts to flourish under Klopp. I hope Newcastle stay up and be good to see what Rafa does with them next season

    • Thanks Paul. Sorry it took so long to get back to answer you. Isn’t ‘nanny state’ is another of those words like ‘Mary Whitehouse’ used by people who don’t want us to set any limits to anything? Nice idea in theory but, practically, surely dangerous. What do we have if we don’t have a state in some form? Feels like we edge our way closer to Thatcher who said that ‘there is no society’. Isn’t that what we’re getting now with a society of individuals who have stopped looking out for each other. Personal anecdote: a guy died four weeks back who lived two doors away for years yet not a single neighbour thought to tell the rest that he’d died. That’s what we’re becoming as a society, or, rather, as a non-society. Just a loose collection of individuals that care only about the self. It’s shameful, shocking. I suspect that all these things that supposedly liberate us actually make us more captive to ourselves.

      • I don’t think that nanny state and Mary Whitehouse are invoked by people who don’t want limits on anything, there are quite clearly a huge amount of constraints on people as evidenced by the huge number of criminal offences on the statute book, the vast vast majority of which are perfectly reasonable and acceptable to most people and there is nothing that springs to mind that I would look to revoke. However there is demonstrable evidence that a society/govt that starts to censor and ban the activities of minorities soon moves onto bigger and more worrying activities and for me there needs to be a demonstrable and proven danger such as is currently the case with private operation of drones before you can make the case to curtail something. I’ll make that my last post on the subject as we are unlikely to agree and won’t even bother to get started on analysing the break up of society.

    • Thanks Paul, my other team Darlington won promotion to the Conference North last night, it’s just over ten years ago since we were playing Swansea in league 2, theres a case of contrasting fortunes for you.

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